House parties the potential problem, but pubs sent to financial purgatory again

Caveat: House parties have emerged as a potential problem, not pub parties

Artists Richard Levins (left) and Paul Cooke begin work on the exterior of Mulligans pub on Poolbeg Street which, like all other pubs that don’t serve food, has to remain closed now until August 10th. Photograph : Laura Hutton / The Irish Times

Artists Richard Levins (left) and Paul Cooke begin work on the exterior of Mulligans pub on Poolbeg Street which, like all other pubs that don’t serve food, has to remain closed now until August 10th. Photograph : Laura Hutton / The Irish Times

 

In the middle of June, just as we were beginning to enjoy the freedom of emerging from lockdown, it was predicted on this page that Ireland would re-enter a national debate on the wisdom of economic reopening in “about one month’s time”. And here we are, bang on schedule, pressing the pause button.

There has not been a major spike in infection rates and Ireland’s 14-day incidence of the virus remains among the lowest in Europe, according to the latest country data from European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. But there has been a noticeable spike in national anxiety over the past fortnight, centred on the risks associated with the fun economy: travel and hospitality.

All of this was predictable by anyone who reads foreign newspapers. Literally, it was written. The earlier experience of other countries suggested there would be some uptick in infection rates after reopening, accompanied by harried calls to backtrack. The anxiety is understandable. The virus affects the minds of the healthy just as it ravages the lungs of the sick. Nobody wants to get sick.

However, the thing that will feel unjust for many small business owners, primarily publicans who have been sent to financial purgatory for another three weeks, is that none of this is their doing. Neither the public anxiety, nor the predictable increase in infections after a lockdown ends.

House parties have emerged as a potential problem, not pub parties. Only a handful of gastropubs have been cited by the Garda for breaching Covid reopening regulations – just 37 so far out of more than 3,500. That’s a level of stupidity commensurate with what you’d expect to find in wider society.

There was much wailing recently over a congregation of younger people drinking in Dublin’s Dame Lane. The footage was replayed over and over on social media, sending anxiety through the roof. But look at it again closely and you might notice that many of those present appear to be either holding cans, or have bags of them. A few publicans, unwisely, sold takeaway pints into a city centre social hotpot. But most of that crowd self-assembled with their own drink.

People are social creatures and Irish people are the proud standard bearers of an open attitude to life. Starved of normal human interaction, some younger people flooded in to Dame Lane at the first sign of collective craic. It wasn’t a wise or laudable thing to do. But nor was it the crime of the century. It was people casting about for some illusory sense of temporary normality after months of emotional pressure. The scenes have not been repeated since, which is the way it should remain for now.

Common sense vacuum

Meanwhile, the Government’s cack-handed management of the major cause of public anxiety, the rules for foreign travel, has migrated from one administration to another. The common sense vacuum that has sucked the life out of travel is nobody’s fault but policymakers’. The prevalence of the virus around the world is not uniform, so the rules around travel should not be either. Decisiveness is required to combat the anxiety, which has resulted in exaggerated reports of hordes of riddled foreign visitors.

Why not just have a green list for safe European countries, a rolling black list for countries such as the US where the virus is currently spiralling, and a grey list with additional screening measures for countries that are somewhere in between, such as the UK? It could include a level of airport testing, or the requirement of a certificate showing a negative test in the country of origin in the days before travel, or some halfway house, or both. Other European Union countries have variable measures.

The Government has justified its decision to keep pubs closed on the basis that it is following the weight of international evidence that shows that bars and nightclubs can cause outbreaks. It is a pity that ministers cherry pick their regard for international evidence, which also shows it is possible to have limited foreign travel to some countries while controlling infection rates. We don’t need a lock-in.

Which brings us back to pubs. All along, the arguments of those who have pushed for deeper economic reopening have included that decisions must be based on evidence, not fear. The evidence from other countries was that once the virus is under control, economies can be reopened to a limited degree with an element of risk to be managed. There is a corollary to that line of argument, which suggests that when the evidence inconveniently goes the other way, we should pay just as much heed to it.

If medical experts raise an empirical flag over the trajectory of the infection rate, then those in charge of the economy, and those who work within it, should listen. This is not some phoney libertarian culture war where evidence that doesn’t bolster your own case can be ignored. If the reproduction rate is now between 1.2 and 1.8, having been well below 1 for months, then a reasonable case can be made for a temporary pause. But pubs should not be left closed for a second longer than is necessary.

Unfortunately for “wet” pubs that can’t run as restaurants, all of this puts them on the front line. That also puts extra moral responsibility on the State to financially assist them out of the far end of the crisis. None of this is the fault of the affected SMEs. It is not enough to simply tell them “tough”.

It should not be forgotten that pubs were among the first parts of the economy to close for the common good in the second week of March, well before the Dáil passed legislation giving the Government powers to order them to do so. They agreed to do what society expected of them. The entire tourism and hospitality sector is now on tenterhooks awaiting the July stimulus, to see what support measures are introduced in return.

It is profoundly depressing to watch an entire industry reduced to this. The longer this runs on and the deeper the need for State intervention becomes, the greater the risk that we create an entire swathe of the economy that cannot survive into the medium term without taxpayers’ cash. Keeping businesses on benefits will be corrosive to our enterprise culture.

There is a sense of urgency in controlling the virus. We must balance that with a similar sense of urgency in looking for ways to keep business moving. Mandatory facemasks, as a low-cost economic enabler, may well be a good move.

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